Excerpt six from Nick Alexander’s gripping 13:55 Eastern Standard Time.
A Really Good Decision
Simon says, “Wow!” The door to the apartment is still open behind him.
“Cool huh?” Hannah replies, grinning lopsidedly. The lopsided grin is a new thing – one of many new things about Hannah he is managing to ignore.
She is standing, hands on hips, in front of an enormous plate-glass window.
“It’s, erm, big,” Simon says. “It’s really big.”
Hannah nods knowingly, then spins to face the window. “And look at the view,” she says.
Simon doesn’t move. He remains in the doorway. In truth his brain is having trouble taking it all in. The sheer scale of the place, the very idea that she, they…
“You like it though, right?” Hannah says, lobbing the words over her shoulder at him.
Ever since college, Simon and Hannah have struggled; actually, if truth be told, he even struggled through college, but since college, well, it just hasn’t stopped.
They have struggled finding jobs, keeping jobs. They have struggled to find time to see each other when the jobs that they had found were at opposite ends of the country. But above all, they have struggled with accommodation issues.
In the last three years, since they have been working in London, they have lived in four short-let apartments – cheap fill-in deals between tenants (too temporary to be satisfying), and three groggy bed-sits (too many cockroaches). They have lived in holidaying friends’ apartments (with and without authorisation), and have had numerous stays in the miniscule rooms of a cheap hotel.
It’s a ridiculous state of affairs for two graduates in their mid twenties, but there you go – London real estate is outrageously expensive. So the idea, the very concept that they might move to this barn-like loft apartment – well – it blows Simon’s mind.
“Simon, tell me you like it,” Hannah repeats, spinning back towards him on the heel of a boot.
The spinning and the boots are new things too. She used to wear plimsols. She was famous for her huge range of coloured plimsols. He liked them. Simon freezes his mind so as not to think about the new Hannah. He doesn’t know why he does this freeze thing with Hannah – he would only know the why if he didn’t freeze his thoughts, if he let his mind travel to the end of that road, but there lie demons.
He used to do the same thing when his parents were arguing. To start with he used to sing songs in his head to avoid thinking about whatever it was tempting but dangerous to contemplate. But nowadays he can just flick a mental switch, and with a puff of imaginary dry ice, the thought is frozen in its tracks. It doesn’t change the outcome of course, any more than it prevented his parents separating, but it makes the waiting easier.
“Of course I like it,” he says. “I really like it.” He pronounces really, weally. He has always had trouble with his ‘R’s. In a way it’s laziness – he knows that. For if he concentrates really hard on the shape of his mouth he can manage a pretty good approximation of the correct sound for ‘R’, but it slows him down, and so, he decided years ago that it was better to say weally and wising than to sound permanently thick. “But I mean,” he continues. “How are we going to pay for it? I mean, how much is this place? How much are the wepayments going to be?”
Hannah crosses the room, in her clip, clip, clipping boots, and closes the front door behind him. “The Off The Grid contract will cover it babe. I told you,” she says.
Simon frowns. The “babe” appellation is new too. Freeze. “And what about after that?” he asks. “What do we do then?”
Hannah gives him a gentle push into the room. “Well, look around then!” she says, then, answering his question, “and I would hope that at some point in the future you can contribute something too.”
Simon walks across the gleaming floor and stands in front of the wall of glass. Beyond it the London skyline is stunning. The daylight is starting to fade and even as he watches, the spotlights on the Tate Modern light up.
“It’s like something fwom a TV programme,” Simon says. “Or like one of those images they show behind the news-weaders.”
Hannah moves to his side. “It doesn’t look like anything from my TV programmes,” she laughs.
Simon stares at the Tate, at the huge chimneys, and in his mind’s eye he sees the smoke billowing from the power station that the building once was. He’s thinking about the fact that Hannah’s tiny TV production company, specialized as it is in programmes about downsizing, green living, and the big hit which has brought them to this point, Off The Grid, well, he’s thinking about how ironic it is that the profits of that are going to pay for all this glass and chrome – for such a consequential upsize.
“You know, I’ll never be able to afford a place like this,” Simon says. “My wages probably won’t pay the heating bill.”
Hannah tutts. She never used to tutt either. Freeze.
“Simon, you have to stop being so negative,” she says. “You won’t be earning peanuts forever. I mean, I believe in you, and, well, you have to believe in yourself.”
Simon frowns. “I do believe in myself,” he says. “And I don’t earn peanuts. I earned nearly three thousand last month. I just think that this place is beyond my … beyond our means.”
He pads across to the kitchen and stands in the doorway looking in. The kitchen alone is bigger than their current place. “It looks like an operating theatre,” he says, shaking his head in awe at the gleaming steel surfaces.
He hears Hannah sigh behind him, and realises she’s losing patience, so to placate her, he offers, “Beautiful though!” He looks back at her and she rolls her eyes and blows though her lips.
“Finally,” she says. “Trust you to like the kitchen though. Come look at the bedroom!”
He crosses the lounge again and follows her up the wooden staircase to the mezzanine. “Wow,” he says, leaning beside her on the guardrail and looking again at the view. The sky is almost dark now and the city sparkles before them. “If anyone out there has binoculars,” he laughs.
“Ya,” Hannah says.
The ya is new too. Freeze. “I thought we could put a row of those white roller blinds along here,” she continues, tracing an imaginary line along the ceiling. “To let the light through but give us some privacy.”
“I’m not sure,” Simon says.
Hannah returns to his side. “Well, it’s of no importance really,” she says. “As long as we come up with some way to…”
“No, I mean about the apartment,” Simon interrupts. “About this place.”
“Jesus!” Hannah whispers. “What’s wrong with you lately?”
He shrugs. “I’m not sure it’s us,” he says. “It’s a wich people’s apartment.”
“Well maybe we’re wich now,” Hannah says. “Maybe you need to get used to that.”
Simon winces. He hates it when people copy his ‘R’ thing. It actually makes him quite angry. He has challenged her about it a couple of times recently, and she says it’s an accident. Automatic mimicry, she claims. But it only happens when she’s angry. Freeze.
“I’m not,” he points out, then with care, “I’m not … r-ich.”
“Then let me pay for it,” Hannah says, her voice softening. “Let me do this for us.”
“But then it’ll be yours,” he argues. “It’ll be your apartment.”
Hannah shrugs. “What does it matter?”
“And what about our values? What about g-r-een living and downsizing, and ecology…”
“Fuck principles,” Hannah says. “I’ve been living with a family of cockroaches for months. Jesus, we spent last Christmas in an Easy Hotel. Do you remember that? Not a white Christmas, but an orange one. And now we can buy this, and we can be secure. It will be ours.”
“Yours,” he counters quietly.
“OK, mine. So what? At least we’ll be secure. At least we won’t be at the whim of some landlord who…”
“Hey,” Simon says, stroking Hannah’s back. “I’m just saying that I don’t see why it has to be so big, so showy.”
“Simon, things change. People change. And what I need right now is an apartment that looks like me. That looks like a successful TV producer. When the people from Channel Four come over, or the Yanks from the Discovery Channel…”
“And what if you don’t get another big cont-r-act?” Simon says. “How secure will we be then?”
“Oh, we’ll get it. He’s being greedy, that’s all. He’s asking for like, three times what we paid him for the first series, but he’ll cave in eventually. Authors always do. They don’t have a choice.”
Simon wrinkles his brow. “But I thought you said he was underpaid,” he says. “I thought you said you only paid him ten grand for the whole first…”
Hannah shrugs. “Yeah, but it’s all a game isn’t it. It’s not the money; it’s just, you know, the principle of it. No-one’s gonna hold me to ransom. Especially not some one-hit author.”
“A one-hit author who has made you pretty wich,” Simon says.
“Nah, he didn’t make me wich babe,” Hannah says. “I did that all myself. Anyway, come on,” she glances at her watch. “It’s decision time. What’s it going to be? Are we moving here, or are you staying in that dingy bed-sit?”
Simon frowns. He thinks about her words. Are we moving in here, or are you staying there. Freeze. He frowns.
Hannah tips her head from side to side cutely, as if peering through a dirty window. Simon stares at her impassively. Then slowly, he lets his brain thaw. He doesn’t know why he does it now, at this particular instant, but he does, he switches off the ice. The melting of the icecaps; the terror of the flood; the joy of survival. And floodwater rushes through – electrifying.
“Hello?” Hannah prompts. She taps the toe of her boot. “Anyone home?”
Simon nods slowly, his eyes fixing hers almost madly. His brain is freewheeling. He feels eleven again, free and reckless. Tap. Tap. Tap. Hannah’s boot beats out rhythm on the parquet.
He tilts his head slightly, then straightens and says, “Yes.”
Hannah smiles contentedly, pecks him on the lips and spins towards the door. “Good decision,” she says. “A weally good decision.”
“Yes,” Simon says again, stealing a final glance at the view – it is dark outside now and even more beautiful than before. “Yes, I’ll be staying in my dingy bed-sit. You can move.”